Press rivals both claim victory over phone-hacking verdicts

This file combination of pictures created on Oct 31, 2013 shows Former News of the World editor and Downing Street communications chief Andy Coulson (left) and Rebekah Brooks, former News International chief executive. -- PHOTO: AFP
This file combination of pictures created on Oct 31, 2013 shows Former News of the World editor and Downing Street communications chief Andy Coulson (left) and Rebekah Brooks, former News International chief executive. -- PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - Britain's media was on Wednesday split over the verdicts in the phone-hacking trial, with the Rupert Murdoch press focusing on Rebekah Brooks's acquittal, and its rivals on Andy Coulson's conviction.

Murdoch tabloid The Sun claimed Tuesday's verdicts as a victory, while his broadsheet The Times said the move to impose new regulations in the wake of the revelations "looks even more of a disaster today than it ever has".

But the Guardian, which exposed much of the scandal, said the trial "produced a picture of widespread criminality" within the News of the World, the tabloid at the heart of the affair.

Murdoch shut down the News of the World in disgrace amid a boycott by advertisers just over three years ago after it emerged that the paper had hacked the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The paper was later found to have hacked a long list of public figures including Prince William, the second-in-line to the British throne, his wife Kate Middleton, and celebrities including former Beatle Paul McCartney and actor Jude Law.

"For a while the notion took hold in some tabloid newsrooms that there was no such thing as privacy. That era is, perhaps, now over," said the Guardian's editorial. "The phone-hacking trial produced a picture of widespread criminality," it added, claiming that the verdict vindicated its reporting.

The centre-left publication said Prime Minister David Cameron "still face serious questions over the hiring of Andy Coulson", who was convicted at London's Old Bailey court of phone-hacking while editor of the tabloid. Coulson later served as Cameron's press secretary.

But the Sun splashed a picture of Brooks across its front-page, along with the headline "Great Day For the Red Tops (tabloids)". Inside, the popular daily called the result "a triumph for British justice and two fingers to the baying mob."

It lashed out at the "hysterical clamour on social media, gleefully stoked by the Guardian", which it claimed had vilified Brooks before evidence had been heard.

The Times accepted that "there is no doubt that there was wrongdoing" at Murdoch's UK newspaper publisher, News International - now called News UK. However, it said that the acquittal of Brooks - former head of News International - proved that government oversight of the press is not needed.

"The acquittal of Rebekah Brooks on charges of phone hacking shows that a rush to implement a draconian regime to curb a free press was a disaster," said its editorial. "The verdict...reveals that the practice of phone hacking did not go to the very top, as critics have alleged.

"To rush to draconian regulation...as the establishment and the pressure group Hacked Off advocate, looks even more of a disaster today than it ever has," it added. The Financial Times called it an expensive victory for Murdoch and agreed that "the bigger question is what this trial and its verdicts signify for the British media in general." "The public must have confidence in the media. Much of the debate has been about whether new rules are needed to inspire that trust," said its leading article. "Tuesday's Old Bailey verdicts show that existing criminal law is a deterrent to press misconduct."